by Gary Earl Ross

Sand scours the last threads of flesh from bone, then scores and pits bone until, scattered by the night wind, what was once one of the People is returned to the desert from which we all came. But the change is without pain, child, for the eyes and heart are gone long before the sand can begin its work. Instead of waking beneath the sand, buried like filth and facing an afterlife of choking terror and darkness, the spirit wakes in the belly of the bird that carries it to heaven. The vulture, you see, is our messenger to God. It has been so always in the City Between Desert and Sea. It shall be so forever.

Once, long ago, there was a man who loved a woman and wanted her for his wife. She was a comely woman, with dark, burning eyes and myrrh-scented skin and hair -- and a dowry limited to the bracelets on her wrists and the rings on her fingers. Her name was Solana -- yes, just like your grandmother. The man who loved her so wildly, who would kill for her, was named Nimbruk. He was a common metalsmith, a maker of pots and simple jewelry, as was his younger brother Inake. Fearing refusal, Nimbruk kept his love in his breast, speaking of it to no one, not even his brother. But it was Inake who took Solana for his wife. When she embraced Nimbruk as her brother, the pain was so great that he lost any remnant of fraternal piety that might have prevented the tragedy that would follow.

Nimbruk left the City, without forewarning or explanation. Unaware of his jealousy and anger, Inake and Solana worried that he might have fallen prey to nomadic thieves who relieved him of his money and tools and took him into the desert to die. For several days after Nimbruk disappeared, Inake followed one funeral procession after another into the desert and studied the patterns of the messengers that circled in wait. He saw no evidence the great birds were feasting outside the funerarium, saw no signs of his brother. After a time, he gave up, contenting himself with the certainty that if Nimbruk had fallen victim to evil in the vast and unforgiving desert, at least his soul had been carried skyward to its rest. Eventually, however, word of Nimbruk’s fate reached the City. He had not been taken into the desert at all. Instead, he had crossed the Sea in a great ship to the land of the heathens that put their dead beneath the ground.

At that time we had just begun to trade with the heathens. Their spices were unlike ours, as were their skinpaints and fabrics and the things they made from gold, silver, and copper. Many strange artisans lived among us, and their work fetched outrageous sums in the marketplace. Just as there was great interest here in unusual heathen artistry, so was there great interest across the Sea in what Nimbruk was able to do with copper and other metals. He prospered and grew fat and became a man of some influence among the heathens.

In his brother’s absence, Inake prospered too, though not as much. His work was of a more utilitarian nature, but his craftsmanship was without peer and his pots, shields, and bracelets were in demand. The beautiful Solana was the one who grew fat, with child after child, until there were two sons and three daughters. Watching his sons grow and play reminded Inake of his own joyful childhood with Nimbruk. They too had wrestled and chased each other through the streets and played Shah Duk with pieces of colored glass on a grid drawn into the dirt. Inake missed his brother and still did not understand why he had left. Over the years every message he had sent by ship to the land of the heathens had gone unanswered, so he had given up all hope of ever seeing Nimbruk again.

Then one day Nimbruk returned.

Richly garbed, he stepped off a trading ship and strode into the City with heathen servants in tow. Needing no directions to the shop he had once shared with his brother, he went straight there, with gifts for Inake and his family. Surprised into silence, Inake embraced his brother and wept. When at last he found his voice, he could not stop speaking. He introduced his sons, nine and seven, and told of his daughters, at home with Solana. He pressed Nimbruk for the details of his own life. Yes, he was prosperous, but was he well? Did he have a wife? Children? Nimbruk apologized for failing to answer so many letters and promised to reveal all, but only if his heathen servants could prepare a feast for Inake and his family.

“Shall we invite our old friends and neighbors?”

“Perhaps another night,” Nimbruk said, clasping his brother to him. “Tonight yours is the only company I desire, yours and Solana’s. You are my only family. I have missed you terribly.”

There was great rejoicing in Inake’s household that evening. Nimbruk sat at the head of the table and directed his servants as they laid platters with a dazzling assortment of vegetables and sweetbreads, fruits and sweetmeats, stuffed fowl and honey wine. He showed his nephews and nieces how to eat one strange delicacy after another and laughed when they wrinkled their noses or twisted their lips at smells and tastes to which they were unaccustomed. Solana ate with the decorum befitting the mother of the house, but Inake approached his plate as if he had seen no food in a fortnight. Between mouthfuls he tried to bring Nimbruk up to date on people they had known, which led to a rapid exchange of childhood memories and impressions that left them both laughing and shaking their heads. Before long the two brothers were singing together, as they had done in their youth.

“I wanted to see the world beyond the City,” Nimbruk said wistfully, when the scraps had been cleared and the wine was nearly gone. The children had been sent to bed, and the servants had retired. “My trade has kept me well occupied and well fed, so I have had no time to take a wife. Besides, I am as strange to the people amongst whom I live as they are to me. Their divers practices never fail to amaze me. Oh, I am happy enough amongst them, and I respect them for the...sincerity of their behaviors and beliefs. But the women there are not like you, dear sister. They could never love me, a foreigner, as you have loved my brother. In truth, they would have given me sturdy children but none so exquisite as the five of yours.” For a moment Nimbruk said nothing as he gazed upon his sister-in-law. “Even after these many years, yours remains the kind of beauty celebrated in the songs of our grandfathers’ grandfathers.”

Indeed still beautiful, Solana lowered her eyes, as modesty demanded, and for a heartbeat or two there was an uncomfortable silence at the table. Then Nimbruk hastened to talk of other things. He boasted of the metalworking commissions he had received from the heathen king and described the land’s peculiar religious customs and folk dances and unique laws. “Their city on the other side of the Sea is larger than ours, and beyond it there is no great desert but vast green fields full of unusual plants and fantastic animals. Many of their traditions in worship and food and healing come directly from these plants and animals.”

“What of their treatment of the dead?” Inake asked. “How can they condemn their souls to eternal darkness?”

“To them it is not darkness,” Nimbruk said. “It is the beginning of the journey toward the light.”

“But how can it be anything but darkness?” Inake protested. “In the ground how can?”

Nimbruk silenced his younger brother with an uplifted hand. “The heathen ways are rather difficult to understand, but I shall try to explain. To them, when the body dies, the spirit leaves it immediately and begins its journey to God before the body is placed in the earth.”

“Without a messenger?” Solana asked, confused.

“And how does it leave without the rending of flesh?” Inake added. “Even if they believe the spirit does not die on the wind as it rises to God, they cannot think it passes unaided through the wall of the skin.”

Solana shuddered. “To think, so many souls lost.”

Nimbruk smiled. “I have said the heathen ways are strange.”

Soon the conversation turned to other matters, and before long all three, barely able to keep their eyes open, went to bed.

Heavy with wine and food, Inake and Solana slept deeply, dreamlessly. On a less festive night they might have heard Nimbruk steal into their chamber. Might have heard his jealous heart pounding as he watched them curled together on their bed in a shaft of moonlight coming through the window. Might have heard the grunt of displeasure so deep in his throat and the rustle of his clothing as he withdrew and uncorked a vial. Might have heard him creep toward the bed and pour the contents of the vial into his sleeping brother’s ear.

The next morning the household was awakened by Solana’s screams...

* * *

News of Inake’s death spread quickly within the walls of the City, even more quickly than news of Nimbruk’s return. Everyone held Inake in high esteem for his industry and his devotion to his family. Many of the friends and neighbors who joined the late afternoon funeral procession into the desert were pleasantly surprised to see Nimbruk and offered their condolences as much to him as to Solana and the children. When he wasn’t playing the dutiful brother-in-law and uncle, Nimbruk wept and blamed himself for overexciting his brother with his unannounced return. The mourners reassured him that with no mark of violence upon his body and no odor of poison or disease upon his lips, his brother had died naturally, peacefully. No, it could not have been the heathen food, they said, for no one else in the household had died or even fallen ill. And Inake must have died happy, in bed beside his beautiful wife, and after a reunion with his long-absent brother. His was a good death, they said, to be envied and wished for, even if it did come too soon.

Wound in a cloth and placed on a pallet, Inake was borne on the shoulders of his friends deep into the desert to the sacred funerarium. There the winding cloth was removed and, naked, he was laid in a spot unlittered by fresh bones but consecrated by the dust of ancestral bone. The mourners sang and lifted their eyes to God to commend Inake into the afterlight. The messengers began to circle even before the priest could finish the summoning prayer. As everyone turned to begin the long recessional toward the City, Nimbruk kept an arm tight around Solana. Quietly, he urged her never to look back, just to listen to the great flapping and terrible screeching that signaled the gathering of her husband’s soul.

* * *

Some weeks later, his brother’s affairs having been concluded, Nimbruk announced that it was time for him to return to the land of the heathens. Much business was waiting there for him. Saddened as he was, he had a trade and a life to resume. He was leaving behind gold and would soon send more so that Solana need never worry for herself and the children.

But Solana had grown used to his presence and his conversation in the evenings, had come to depend upon his counsel in household matters. “Can you not ply your trade here? Inake left a business you once shared. Can you not return to the shop and make your life here, amongst us, your only family?”

Nimbruk was silent for a time as joy flooded into him. He had wanted nothing more than for Solana to ask him to stay. But he must not agree too readily, must not expose his feelings too early. She must never suspect that he had harbored any adoration of her for so long that he might have had something to do with Inake’s death. So he concealed his delight as carefully as he had concealed his love for Solana when they were young. “I must go at least for a time,” he said, “to tend to commissions that have piled up in my absence, tasks I dare not leave to my apprentices. I shall return in two?no, three months, after I have got even with my work and you, all of you, have had time to yourselves. Then we shall see what the future holds.”

* * *

Nimbruk spent the next three months as he had spent the entire year before his surprise return to the City, turning his metalworks into a self-sustaining enterprise he could oversee from a distance. His apprentices having been schooled in our arts and his chief servants having gained his trust long ago, he would need to visit the metalworks only once or twice a year. With what he knew of the heathen arts, he could make Inake’s shop more profitable than ever. When at last he journeyed back to the City and Solana, his humility masked the cold certainty that he would amass greater wealth on both sides of the water and sooner or later his sister-in-law would become his. Head bowed before her and a pair of servants at his back, Nimbruk declared it was an honor and a pleasure to make himself responsible for the lives and fortunes of the six who meant more to him than anyone else alive. Still he said nothing of his love for Solana. Time and closeness, he knew, were his best allies.

To his credit, Nimbruk threw himself into the duties of caring for his brother’s family as if discharging the terms of a sacred trust. He made apprentices of the boys, Philidan and Turik, and crafted the most exquisite gold bracelets for Solana and her daughters. Their table never lacked for food or drink, stories or songs. Visitors came regularly. All were amazed at how much life the once withdrawn Nimbruk brought into the home of his dead brother. More months passed. Soon, of course, there was talk in the streets that Solana should consider marriage to her brother-in-law. To each friend or neighbor who raised the question, Nimbruk averted his eyes and said he was unworthy of so fine a woman. Yes, he admitted, it was hard not to fall under her spell, living in the same house and all, but he wished no dishonor to his brother’s memory. He asked everyone to swear an oath against spreading such talk, lest it get back to Solana and jeopardize her sisterly affection for him.

Eventually, word did reach Solana, as he had known it must when he first sent his servants to the marketplace to whisper to each other what a fine pair their master and the mistress would make. In later years Nimbruk could pinpoint the day she began to give weight to such talk. It was the third evening of the feast of the autumn moon, and seated in the street with the women of the neighborhood as the men danced by firelight, she looked at him as if seeing him, truly seeing him, for the first time. He pretended not to notice her eyes upon him, not to feel them caressing his back as he danced in the circle of men. He did not dare meet them with his own eyes for fear that he might lose his resolve and confess his feelings in front of everyone. No one would have minded or been surprised, but he thought it wise to give things still more time, to let his desires almost accomplish themselves. The truest test of all he had set in motion would be whether she came to him. Then there would be no lingering doubt, no mistaking her feelings. Thus was he ready when, a few weeks later, she appeared at his bedside in the middle of a chilly night.

They were married one month after the anniversary of Inake’s death.

* * *

For the next eight years Nimbruk worked to be the best husband and father imaginable, as if atoning for the theft of his brother’s family. Happily, he led the them in all the rituals expected of the head of the household, including prayers to the memory of the dead. Even after the name Inake slipped from Solana’s lips, thrice during sleep and once during lovemaking, his devotion to her was unwavering, his efforts to fulfil her every desire overwhelming. Early on she learned to be more careful in the marketplace, lest he fill the house with every trinket, carving, and piece of clothing she admired. But he was especially dutiful when it came to the children, though even the youngest daughter, who had no real memory of her father, called him uncle. He told them stories, taught them games, and crafted playthings for them out of copper and wood. He began a dowry for each daughter and turned the sons into fine artisans. Though they had never called him father, and never would, they all loved and honored him.

All, that is, except Turik, who was never rude, never disrespectful, but always...distant. Remote. Detached. Too watchful to be a child. Through those eight years, Nimbruk’s single discomfort, he realized in a sudden flash of understanding before a quiet winter dawn, was Turik’s eyes. They were large, dark eyes, depthless and unreadable. A true artisan’s eyes, unflinching in their hunger for detail and nuance. Staring at him across the table or across the shop. Already open and fixed on Nimbruk’s face when he concluded family prayers. Gazing into him, so deeply into him. It was Turik’s eyes he saw whenever he closed his own and the memory of what he had done to his brother was upon him. Still in bed as the first threads of sunlight filtered into their curtained chamber that morning, Nimbruk decided he must do something about his nephew’s eyes. The solution came to him almost at once.

Philidan was eighteen now and sturdy, with broad shoulders, callused hands, and an easy smile. As the elder son, he was expected to become a partner in his father’s shop. The business had grown well and prospered under Nimbruk’s supervision, and the well-trained Philidan was more than equal to the task of keeping the metalworks alive. Turik, on the other hand, was only sixteen and still an apprentice, but equally strong and possessed of such deft, precise fingers that he was already qualified for a partnership himself. Nimbruk had taught them both well, and in his expert tutelage lay the solution to his unease around Turik.

At dinner that evening, Nimbruk announced it was time Philidan took the responsibilities of a partner in the shop in the City. “You are ready, boy,” he said. “My brother would be proud of the man you’ve become.” What he said next surprised the whole family. “And Turik, you have grown into an exceptionally fine craftsman yourself. There is little more that I can teach you here, so after much thought, I have decided you shall complete your apprenticeship in the land of the heathens.” He bit his lip at Solana’s sudden intake of breath but recovered quickly enough to turn to her with a smile. “My dear, he will be perfectly safe in my house there, under the protection of my servants and my workers. There is so much he will learn there, so much he will see. This is the opportunity of a lifetime, not only for him but for the family as well. Sooner or later, my metalworking days will come to an end, as will my tolerance of traveling back and forth between cities. With Philidan here and Turik there, our family will thrive for generations. Think what the dowries will become, and the future for your -- our -- unborn grandchildren.”

After a brief silence, Solana said, “I worry that he will forget our ways and fall into the ways of the heathens. Some of the heathens living here have seen the true light and adopted our customs. I have heard talk of our people over there, forsaking our traditions for something new.”

“I never did,” Nimbruk said cheerfully. “Nor will Turik. He is well schooled in the ways of the People. He will prosper and make us proud.”

So Turik crossed the Sea, and Nimbruk felt better in the absence of his eyes.

* * *

The heathen city embraced Turik like an honored houseguest. It filled his eyes and his other senses with the wonder of new dances and songs, bizarre clothing and skin art, and foods even stranger than the fare his uncle’s servants often prepared. Perhaps because he was ready to emerge from his brother’s shadow and his uncle’s household, he thrived. Within a few years he mastered the heathen arts and proved an inventive metalsmith in his own right, earning praise and commissions for his bold creations. His work brought him into the finest households, before the finest families, before their adoring daughters. Unlike his uncle, he was unburdened by memories of a lost love on the other side of the Sea and grew into strapping manhood with a healthy interest in women.

The colorfully clad heathen women found him as exotic as he found them. He grew quite skilled at pleasing them, though no one truly captured his heart until he met a young enchantress named Aletra. She was slim and amber-skinned, with long legs and eyes blacker and larger than any he had ever seen. She wore the sun painted on her left breast and the moon painted on her right, and between them Turik found a universe of emotions unlike any he had felt in his previous assignations. From the first night he lay with her, and her small breast fit so perfectly in his hand, he surrendered his life to her, his art, his soul. As he worked in the shop, his head spun so with visions of lying in her arms at night that by the end of each day he could barely breathe. No matter. He believed he was the luckiest man in the heathen city, for her feelings toward him were equally strong.

Soon they were married, with no witnesses but shop and household servants. Turik moved her into his house?his uncle’s house?where they began a life together with all the joy and hope of their youth. The union proved unfortunate, however, not because of the differences in their worlds or Solana’s strained letter of congratulations but because of a moment of perfect clarity occasioned by sweet, simple pillow talk.

In her own fashion, the enchantress is as skilled a practitioner as the metalsmith. Like her mother before her, Aletra was deft in the shadow arts and sometimes explained to her husband as much of her craft as was permitted. On one such night Turik was seized by a memory. As Aletra described potions and poisons that are introduced into the body through the ear, he recalled that as a child he had come to the door of his parents’ room one night and been surprised to see his uncle bending over the bed. He had withdrawn at once, sensing that he should not disturb a man planting a kiss on the cheek of his sleeping brother. Had he seen something withdrawn from the folds of his uncle’s clothing and emptied into his father’s ear? The next morning, he remembered, his father was dead. Was there some connection? Had that possibility been the thing swimming beneath his consciousness all these years? Had it kept him staring so absently at his uncle, kept him so distant?

He shared with Aletra his memories and suspicions. Head in the crook of his arm, she asked if he could remember anything about what he had seen poured into his father’s ear. Color? Thickness? Smell? He closed his eyes, forced his mind backward, strained to notice details that were just not in his memory, and shook his head. “I was too far away,” he said. “Is any of that important?”

“Some potions cause death,” she answered gently, “and others cause only the appearance of death?a waking death that lasts for two or three days, with all the senses intact but no ability to move or speak.”

It was then that the horror began to claw at his heart.

* * *

Before Nimbruk’s next scheduled visit, Turik returned to the City, his wife and three of his uncle’s servants behind him. It is uncertain whether his mother’s tears were from joy at the sight of the grown son she had not seen in five years or from fear that his soul was lost to the heathens. In any case, Solana embraced her new daughter and welcomed her into their home. Philidan and his sisters were delighted at their brother’s return. They clustered around him, kissing him and laughing and peppering him with questions about life in the heathen city. When he had offered them his own affectionate laughter and introduced Aletra and answered their questions, they told him of their own news. Philidan’s shop was doing a brisk business, and Kelani, the eldest sister, was betrothed. Thanks to their uncle’s hard work, the other sisters’ dowries had grown so large that when they were of age, they would have no trouble finding a husband. Solana, of course, had the servants prepare a stunning feast of traditional dishes Turik had not tasted in years.

Only Nimbruk seemed unmoved by Turik’s homecoming. He stood aside as the others fussed over the newlyweds and said few words during the evening meal, though he strove to make himself appear in good spirits. As discreetly as he could he studied Turik, but at odd moments his nephew’s eyes met his, held them, unnerved him. There was something different about the way Turik looked at him now. Before, there had been an emptiness to be filled, a child’s unspoken curiosity that had gone unsatisfied, a hunger that hung between them. Now Turik had the steady gaze of a man whose wonder has long since died?or been answered. In fact, he looked much older than his twenty-one years. As he had long ago, Nimbruk felt the stirrings of an inexplicable unease.

“What troubles you, husband?” Solana asked when he retired to their chamber in the early hours of morning.

“Nothing but old age, my sweet, whose chariot closes in upon me with ever faster horses.” Startled that she had noticed the mood he was trying to mask, he settled himself into bed beside her. “Turik with such a fine young wife?and Kelani about to be wed. All this has made me think of the grandchildren that soon will liven this house.” He offered Solana his saddest smile. “I have come to consider grandchildren the last vanity of an old man.”

“You will be as wonderful a grandfather,” she began, “as you have been a father. As you have been a husband.” Tears welled in her eyes. “When Inake...died, you were the best brother you could be, to him and to me, and the best uncle my children could ever want. You sacrificed your life for us, gave up all that you held dear so that we might live.” She looked away. “And I could never thank you properly. I could not even give you a child of your own.” Then she wept.

“Solana,” he said, embracing her from behind.

She turned in his arms to face him. “If any man deserves to be called grandfather, it is you,” she said with a passion that surprised him. “The name will ring like a song through this house.” Then she kissed him, and they made love before they fell asleep.

* * *

The next morning Solana’s screams shattered Nimbruk’s sleep, and he felt himself pushed onto his back. He heard her voice and her cries above him. Felt her hands on his chest and arms, shaking him, shaking him. Smelled the myrrh in her hair as it tickled his face. Felt the heat of her tears splash onto his cheeks, her lips brush against his own. Saw only two thin feathers of light through the lashes of his closed eyes. He could not move, and when he realized what must have happened, he wanted to scream himself. But he could not move.

The family rushed into the chamber. Nimbruk heard Solana send someone for a physician. Everyone else gathered around the bed, weeping and kissing him, cradling his head, stroking his hands. When the physician came, the old man placed his ear against Nimbruk’s chest, pried open the mouth and placed his nose between Nimbruk’s teeth to draw in a deep breath, peeled back the eyelids and looked into Nimbruk’s eyes for a long time. Then he twisted the head this way and that, his dry fingers probing Nimbruk’s neck, a ragged thumbnail scratching the skin. “No marks upon the body,” he said. “No sign or smell of poison. No damage to the throat. He has died just like his brother, likely from the same cause, some weakness or disease that runs in the family. Did not his parents die young, before their children were fully grown?”

“Yes,” Solana said between sobs. “His father, then his mother, a few months apart. Inake and he were barely in their teens.”

“There you have it then.” The old physician’s voice grew firm with certainty. “Something peculiar to them both which they passed on to their children, though Nimbruk outlasted them all. At least he lived to see some of these children reach their majority.”

Nimbruk could see Philidan and his sisters clustered behind the physician, weeping, and could hear Solana beside his left ear, murmuring that people would think she had cursed two husbands. He did not know where Turik and Aletra were but he sensed they were in the room. Then the physician forced his mouth shut, hard enough to make his teeth hurt briefly, and closed his eyes with dirty thumbs. Within a few minutes Nimbruk was alone in the bedchamber.

Later the women washed his body and wrapped it in a cloth. Solana and Kelani described our funerary customs to Aletra as she assisted them. The sun must not set on the body, Solana explained, because the night winds might cover it with sand and trap his soul in eternal choking darkness before the messengers had a chance to retrieve it and carry it to the afterlight. In late morning, friends would gather in the house to pay their respects. The priest would offer prayers for the continued strength of the family. Afterward, each family member would have a moment alone with him, to whisper a final word of love or thanks, to seek or offer special forgiveness for an unfinished dispute, and to ask him to speak well of them before God. Then, in the afternoon, the procession would begin, gathering mourners as it moved through the streets. Nimbruk would be borne to the funerarium and left for the messengers that would collect his soul before nightfall.

Nimbruk listened with increasing horror and would have cried out had he been able to do so. Of all the kindnesses he overheard that morning and all the words of love whispered into his ears early that afternoon, the only phrase that stayed with him as his pallet was carried into the desert was Turik’s: “For my father.”

When he had been left naked in the sun and the messengers settled upon him and he felt their talons and beaks begin to work on him, he understood for the first time what Inake must have endured. The pain was searing. The horror of it was listening to the splitting of his own skin, the tearing of his own flesh, the thick, wet swallows of the messengers. He knew that through this fire he would feel himself bleed to death before the potion wore off and the sand could begin to scour his bones. Unable to scream to fight the pain, he wished for a swift death and strained to recall endearments and prayers offered earlier on his behalf. His only consolation was the hope that when he stood in the presence of God, those words and all he had done for Solana and her children would help balance the evil he had visited upon his brother.

But even so meager a penance was denied him. We know the story of Nimbruk because of what Turik, my great-grandfather, told his son many years later, on his own deathbed. Three of Nimbruk’s servants, those who had come with them to the City, lingered behind, waiting until the recessional was out of sight. Never having understood what they called our pagan practices, especially our rites for the dead, they shooed away the great birds and carried the bloody but still living Nimbruk off for a proper burial, in a grave Aletra had sent them to dig before the body was prepared. The heathens believed with all their hearts their fallen master would be happier there.

A deep, deep grave some distance away from the funerarium, it was already beginning to shift and fill, even before they laid him in it, with the only surface material for miles around. Sand.

© 2007 by Gary Earl Ross


About the Author

Gary Earl Ross is a professor at the University at Buffalo, a fiction writer, and a playwright. His books include The Wheel of Desire and Shimmerville. His plays include the Edgar Award-winning Matter of Intent and the political drama The Best Woman. Visit him at The Writer's Den (


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